Victor Serge

April 28, 2012

I put Victor Serge alongside of Vasily Grossman as an awe-inspiring Russian writer of whom I knew next to nothing, brought to my attention by the wonderful New York Review of Books Press (and also by my friend who recommended Kolyma Tales.)  Serge’s novels are not, in fact, well known at all; certainly not here in America.  He wrote in French, was published in French, and was saved from death in the Gulag because of the outcry of French literary intellectuals who were acquainted with his work.  Good thing he knew French!  His novels were only first published in English in the early 1970s.

Serge was born Victor Lvovich Kibalchich, in 1890, the son of anti-Tsarist agitators living in exile in Belgium.  He grew up in the militant atmosphere of exiled socialist-communist revolutionaries, and only set foot in Russia in 1919, after years of agitation, prison, writing, various exiles, and a life of poverty.  He landed in Petrograd/Saint Petersburg/Petersburg/Leningrad in the midst of the terrifying five-year Russian Civil War, and threw himself into The Revolution.  He remained a committed revolutionary, but retained his fierce independent (was it anarchist?) bent, and was quick to recognize the ‘betrayal of The Revolution’ that Stalin represented.  From there, it was all downhill.

His writings are unique in their blend of intense sympathy for the revolutionary cause, their unflinching recognition of the crimes committed in its name, their profound disgust with the course of the Soviet revolution, their poetic style, and the modernistic techniques he absorbed from European literary developments.  No plain social realism, no bitter denunciations of the cause betrayed, no simple answers.  Most interesting to me:  he focuses like a laser on the questions of just how people can believe they are struggling for the better  future of humanity while committing acts they know to be outrageous crimes; and why did so many people simply carry on with their work, fatalistically expecting to be unjustly arrested, tried, and perhaps executed?

The shortest of these three novels here, Conquered City, was the first written, and takes place in Petrograd during the siege he witnessed beginning in 1919.  The physical privation of citizens is horrifying.  The novel is actually a series of vignettes, some of which take place out of the city on the various fronts of the civil war, and which introduce characters from all realms of the Russian Empire:  bandits, intellectuals, proletarian communists, proletarian White sympathizers, counter-revolutionaries, Party leaders, and on. Serge depicts them all with sympathy, yes, even the counter-revolutionaries!  Throughout, all are subject to terror:  the Red Terror, or the White Terror.

One episode involves a dedicated young woman communist, hell-bent on “getting a case [investigation of a counter-revolutionary cell] moving.”  She is enthusiastic, relentless, and totally committed to the cause, with little thought for…well, anything. She cracks the case.  It turns out that a well planted worker is actually an enemy agent, and the lover of a formerly middle-class young woman.  Turns out that this woman was friendly with a well-respected, energetic, young communist agent, Arkady.  The woman’s brother was ‘suspected’ of something – wasn’t everyone? – and was hauled in for questioning.  Arkady knew immediately it was all garbage, and got the fellow released.  Now the man’s sister is known to be the lover of a man who is known to be an enemy of the people, and Arkady released his brother!  He’s done for, and he knows it.  Osipov, his friend, arrests him.  “What have you done, my poor old friend, what have you done!”  They shake hands.

Later, another mutual friend visits Osipov and challenges him on the arrest of Arkady:  “You know brother, we’re committing a crime.

“A crime?”  Osipov tossed back at him.  “Because one of us got hit this time around?  Don’t you understand that one must pay with one’s blood for the right to be pitiless?  Do you by any chance imagine that we won’t all end up like that?”

Class war is a dirty business, but “it must be done.”  These views recur again and again through the books.  With views like that, people will do anything.

The Case of Comrade Tulayev may be Serge’s best known novel, and I found it to be the most extraordinary of the three.  It takes place at the height of the Great Purge of the late 1930s triggered by the assassination of Kirov.  A young man gets hold of a revolver, determined to kill Stalin.  On his nightly walks, he actually sees him occasionally, stepping into a limousine at a Kremlin gate.  With the revolver in hand, he approaches the gate again, and Stalin is there!  But he totally looses his nerve, and walks on.  A little later, he sees another Party boss – it’s Tulayev, yes, certainly it’s that murderous scum!  He’s being dropped at the door of his mistress’ apartment.  He walks up to him, shoots him, and runs.  The ripples of terror immediately spread far and wide.

The chapters of the novel tell the story of Party members caught in the net of the pseudo-investigation into the murder.  There must be a conspiracy of course:  how could it be otherwise?  Most of them end up dead, shot for their invented complicity in the international plot against the Socialist state.  Among the victims: a long-exiled party member brought in from his Siberian house-arrest for interrogation; a young woman studying textile production in Paris on a plush-assignment (her father is a bigwig in the police organs – he is arrested too) who reads of the arrest of a former teacher and makes the fatal mistake of sending a telegram to papa demanding that he help the man; a commissar working in Spain – just what was Stalin’s aim in the Spanish Civil War? – who intercedes to help a young American communist arrested as a Trotskyite [He actually confronts Stalin in the Kremlin, and is let off with a posting to Siberia to work in forestry.]

One victim, in prison, is visited by another old Bolshevik who has been broken.  He urges the resister to give in, confess to whatever is asked:

Better men than you and I have done it before us.  Others will do it after us.  No one can resist the machine.  No one has the right, no one can resist the Party without going over to the enemy.  Neither you nor I will ever go over to the enemy…And if you consider yourself innocent, you are absolutely wrong?  We innocent?  Who do you think you’re fooling?  Have you forgotten about our trade?  Can Comrade High Commissar for Security be innocent?  Can the Grand Inquisitor be as pure as a lamb?  Can he be the only person in the world who doesn’t deserve the bullet in the neck which he distributed like a rubber-stamp signature at the rate of seven hundred per month on the average?  Official figures – way off, of course.  None will ever know the real figures…”

As someone wrote of Kruschev, commenting on his secret speech denouncing Stalin’s crimes, he too was up to his elbows in blood.  They all knew the score.  They had quotas for arrests, imprisonment, execution…  Amazing that through all this, Serge still manages to convey why these people got into this in the first place:  their intense thirst for justice, fairness, an end to the crushing tyrannical poverty of the old regime, and a deeply felt desire for a society in which human equality is prized.  To note this as an irony is so obvious as to be ridiculous.

Unforgiving Years is the last of the three that I read, and the strangest in many ways.  In this book, Serge adopts a style that is at times elliptical, modernistic, and sometimes seems hallucinatory.  It is the tale of a communist agent who has had enough – he can’t go on, and he decides to escape to Mexico.  He knows the machinations of the security apparatus and how hard they are to evade, and he knows that his knowledge only gives him a little head start over his inevitable pursuers.  There’s also the business of his lover:  he wants to take her too, and that makes it harder.

The novel seems like a screenplay for a political film noir, but the level of tension, paranoia, and sheer horror exceeds anything from that genre.  At times, I felt that Thomas Pynchon had cribbed the entirety of Gravity’s Rainbow, from Serge:

In every war there is a rear that holds better than the front, a rear fat with noble sentiments, creature comforts, and lucrative deals:  this rear, which balances the front, makes the insanity total…The beaches of California still exhibit, in season, a full complement of pretty women with smiling thighs:  such is the natural order of things.  After all, there’s philosophical solace to be found in the fact that some still live while others die, an obvious improvement on everyone dying…But it  is no longer possible to embark upon a  coherent line of reasoning without falling into absurdity.

This novel was published in English in 1970, about the time Gravity’s Rainbow came out, but who knows?  Maybe Pynchon read it in French?

The ending of the story takes place in a paradisaical Mexican mountain setting but has all the weirdness and menace of the finale of Jim Thompson’s The Getaway.  Knowing as we do the end which Trotsky met in hiding, it is no surprise what happens, but just how the long arm of the Party reaches out to crush those who stray is terrifying nevertheless.

Not exactly happy reading these three books, but Victor Serge is a novelist for the ages – brilliant!


Faithful Ruslan – a dog story?

June 17, 2011

Despite my immersion in the three volumes of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag, the novels of Vassily Grossman, and other Stalin-era material, I had never heard of Faithful Ruslan, by Georgi Vladmiov.  Many thanks to the author of the anonymous comment at this dog-oriented post who pointed me to it!  Vadlimov is not well-known here, but he should be.

The plot takes place over a year or two at the time of the great political thaw in the USSR, when Khrushchev made his secret speech denouncing Stalin’s great crimes (he did not refer to his own deep complicity in those crimes, of course) and many prisoners of the slave labor system, The Gulag Archipelago, were released.  Ruslan is a guard dog, born and bred to the role, who is let go after his master cannot bear to shoot him down.  He struggles to find a role in the world after his entire universe is upturned, except that he doesn’t really understand how completely it has been ended.  The camp is gone, the prisoners have not escaped: they were released, and they are not returning.

The story is told from a ominiscient (human) point of view, but the portrayal of dog-consciousness is absolutely wonderful.  Inherent in the structure of the tale are many levels of dramatic irony: we, the human readers know things that the hero, a dog, could never know in his time, or ever;  we know things simply by virtue of being readers, many years after the events related; the human characters know things the dogs do not know; and the dogs know, or seem to know, some things the humans do not and could not know.  The fractured points of view which comment on one another give the tale tremendous power.

On another level, the story is an allegory of Stalin’s USSR, and of human subservience to authority in general.  The allegory is not subtle – is subtlety called for in a discussion of Stalin’s rule?  Ruslan regards his hard master as a godlike being, and he lives simply to serve him and love him.  At one point, he dreams of a world in which everyplace is within the barbed wire of a great prison camp – wouldn’t that be wonderful! – but of course, there must be an inside and an outside, or where would you place the malefactors who would not follow the rules?

Through Ruslan’s memories and the conversations of the humans around him, we get vignettes of camp life that are harrowing in their brutality.  This relatively simple tale is very deep, sad, and upsetting.  My copy of this book is an old library edition – I’m not sure if it has been republished lately.  I was aware reading the blurbs and introduction that the great troika of 20th century horrors – Hitler’s genocide, Stalin’s gulag, Mao’s mass-murder by purge and policy – are fading away into history.  Do young people today feel them with the immediacy that I did as a student, though even then it was old news?


Putin’s Neo-Stalinism? Absolutism?

May 24, 2011

 

Today’s column by Joe Nocera on Russian justice got me thinking about Putin, the current leader, in fact, if not nominally, of Russia.  His grandfather was a cook in Stalin’s household, and he himself was brought up through the communist security organs.  He presides over Russia with something like Louis’ attitude of L’etat, c’est moi.  No Versailles, no lavish costumes, but he holds near absolute power, and he wields it as the champion of the Russian state against the Russians themselves.

Nocera’s column is about the tycoons who grew rich looting the crumbling USSR – nobody says they were good guys! – and who have now run afoul of Putin’s blueprint for the greatness of Russia.  Independent billionaires represent a power center not under state control, and a potential threat to it, and so must be brought to heel.  Some of these oligarchs, as they are called, have gained some perspective on the nature of a functioning good society as they have lived their lives of luxury.  And they have, or had, the means to do something about it, such as supporting opposition political figures and parties, or founding them!  The most prominent of them have been brought to trial on trumped-up or highly dubious charges, and are invariably found guilty.  The state confiscates their property.

Not exactly the Great Purge of Uncle Joe, but times have changed.  The great show trials directed by Stalin do come to mind:  after all, Putin obviously feels the need to present the appearance of legality.  Putin is plowing the field cultivated by Louis XIV who orchestrated his own great show trial against his former minister Fouquet, a valuable servant who acquired too much wealth not to excite the jealousy and fear of Louis, and all of which he lost to the Sun King.


Four-eyed, commie Jews from the USSR

January 20, 2011

  Vassily Grossman

Two writers, two Jews, two intellectuals with glasses thrown into the midst of unspeakable horror and violence – but such different writers!

I have heard of Isaac Babel for years, but never knew anything about him.  He was always associated in my mind with Jewish literature – but then why is he also linked with the Soviet political elite and its destruction in the Great Purges of the 1930s? 

Nadezhda Mandelshtam talks about him in her overwhelming memoir, Hope Against Hope.  Her husband, Osip, considered to be one of the great poets of Russian in the 20th century, despite his small output (he died in the Gulag) regarded people with power as dangerous individuals to be avoided as you would a live power line.  He asked Babel why was he so fascinated by violence; why did he socialize with high-level members of the security organs, the ‘distributors of death?’  Did he want to rub his fingers in their bloody mayhem?  “No,” Babel replied, “I just want to sniff it, to see how it smells.”   He got his wish.  He was arrested on ridiculous charges of counter-revolution and shot in the usual prison basement.

I have been reading Babel’s stories, Red Cavalry.  They tell of the fighting in the Russian-Polish War of 1920, when both the new Republic and the USSR were fighting to extend their borders.  He is the narrator, or is spoken for by one, who travels with a Cossack fighting unit.  They make fun of his education, deriding his eyeglasses.   Like a teenage boy desperately wanting to fit in with some tough guys, he tries to win their approval even if it means acting brutally to an old peasant woman and scaring her into making him a fine dinner.  The stories are short, filled with cruelty, and quite starkly beautiful at times – clearly the work of a serious artist.  The cossacks are portrayed with an intensity that seems to me almost homoerotic, though Lionel Trilling, in a 1955 essay from the appendix, is quick to dismiss that notion.   When Babel describes the gigantic figure of a Cossack with knee-high boots that caress his legs like clinging young girls, what is one to think?  A four-eyed Jew riding with Cossacks [often the agent of Tsarist or popular violent repression of Jews] – how ironic can you get?

The stories are fascinating and disturbing.  Babel seems to worship the Cossacks the way some weak-minded intellectuals worship “men of action,” the type of intellectual who got misty-eyed about generalissimo Stalin or Adolf Hitler.  But…he’s clever, not simple, so he pulls back from that brink:  but it makes for queasy reading.   

Vassily Grossman, on the other hand, also an enthusiastic revolutionary, at least to begin with, is an enormous contrast.  His works are filled with a profound sense of the tragedy of violence.  He shows it, but he is never intrigued, seduced, or mesmerized by it.  Puzzled by the mystery of human evil and cruelty, but not drawn to it.  He writes of small instances of love that seem to redeem the world in the midst of misery.  (I am reading the new publication by NYRB of stories and nonfiction in The Road.)  He writes of the Sistine Madonna by Raphael, and how it evokes in his mind the story of Christ, the love of mothers for their doomed sons,  and the suffering of the Russian peasant.  And he writes, an historical first, an analysis of the Nazi death camps that he visited.

Grossman was known by many as lucky Grossman.  A grenade landed at his feet, but failed to explode.  As a front-line war correspondent, he had many such lucky escapes.  Perhaps his greatest was evading Stalin’s purge of Jews after WWII:  he was on the list most likely, but Stalin died before the thugs brought him in. 

I was reminded of another four-eyed Jew, no artist, no intellectual, while reading Babel’s stories:  David Brooks.  Specifically, I thought of this column (discussed in this earlier post of mine) in which he goes to mush over the declarations of ‘muscular Christianity’ by a bigoted evangelical. 

When you read Stott, you encounter first a tone of voice. Tom Wolfe once noticed that at a certain moment all airline pilots came to speak like Chuck Yeager. The parallel is inexact, but over the years I’ve heard hundreds of evangelicals who sound like Stott.

It is a voice that is friendly, courteous and natural. It is humble and self-critical, but also confident, joyful and optimistic. . .

Stott is so embracing it’s always a bit of a shock – especially if you’re a Jew like me – when you come across something on which he will not compromise. [Such as, that Jews are damned to hell, I wonder?] It’s like being in “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” except he has a backbone of steel. He does not accept homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle, and of course he believes in evangelizing among non believers. He is pro-life and pro-death penalty, even though he is not a political conservative on most issues.

Brooks loves that “spine of steel,” that unwillingness, or is it inability? to compromise.  He loves the black and white nature of the view.  And he even loves the tribalism, the with us or against us attitude.  I guess Isaac Babel found it shocking how Cossacks looked at Jews like him too, and then fell in love with them when he got close enough to sniff…


Stalin’s Girl

August 19, 2010

Ninotchka (1939) is a fairy tale about the transformation of a political animal into a full-bodied woman.  As a slave to the Garbo gaze, I can’t help but like this film.  I saw it as a boy after hearing my mother talk about the tag line used by the studio, “Garbo laughs!” Laugh she does, and the film is witty and entertaining, with some very strange dark notes for us post-WWII viewers.

The story begins with some hapless Russians, bumbling diplomats charged by the Soviet government with the task of selling off some jewels confiscated during the Revolution.  The USSR needs hard currency badly because its harvests are so bad.  The three bumblers are seduced by the pleasures of Paris and fail miserably in their job.  Garbo’s no-nonsense, hard as nails character is sent to remedy the situation.

Waiting to meet their superior, whom they do not know, at the train station, and expecting a man, the diplomats at first follow a likely fellow who looks the part.  Nope, he’s a Nazi.  Finally, they realize the dour Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, aka Ninotchka, waiting on the platform, is the one.  How are things in Moscow, comarade?  Very good!  The latest mass trial was a great success.  There will be fewer but better Russians now! Black humor indeed!

Ninotchka asks for some cigarettes while meeting with her team, and they ring up the maids.  The lovely staff, thinking they are in for a repeat of the previous night’s orgy rushes up to oblige.  Ninotchka is no fool, and she quickly sizes up the situation.  Comrades, you must have been smoking a lot!

Melvyn Douglas plays a smooth character, Count Leon d’Algout,who meets Nitnotchka by chance outside her hotel.  He also happens to be the lover of the émigré noblewoman whose confiscated jewels are the subject of the bumblers’ mission, but that comes out later.  Leon attempts to charm Ms. Soviet but can’t penetrate her caricatured facade of rationality, logic, statistics, and 30’s stlye political correctness.  Viewing the city from the Eiffel Tower she remarks that it’s beautiful, but a waste of electricity.  Nevertheless, no slave to convention, and ever eager to study the natives of the decadent west, she goes to his apartment.  She is honest and self-aware enough to admit that they have a great chemical attraction to one another.

He asks her just what kind of girl is she?  Just what you see.  A tiny cog in the great wheel of evolution. He avers that she is the most beautiful tiny cog he has ever seen.

In the hotel lobby, she is surprised and disgusted by a hat for sale.  So impractical and frivolous, not to mention expensive.  She could probably by a few cows for what that hat costs!  It’s an odd style, but I guess on fashion’s leading edge at the time.

After their mutual interest in the jewels is revealed, Ninotchka puts off Leon, but he persists and follows her into a working class bistro for lunch.  He makes a funny show of trying to convince her that he always eats here, and loves the company of workers.  Vowing to drag a laugh out of her, he starts on a series of jokes, all of which meet with utter failure.

The explosion comes by accident.  He is exasperated, moves away, and falls off his chair.  She laughs.

They laugh together.  It’s wonderful.

Transformed by her love for Leon, she notices that the weather is fine, there are birds outside while snow is still on the ground in Moscow.  We have the high ideals, but they have the climate, comrades. Stuck in Paris for two weeks until the dispute over the jewels can be settled, what shall they do?  One fellow suggests a visit to the sewers, most instructive.

She goes and buys that hat and puts it on after ridding herself of her underlings.  Woman confronts fashion…and herself.  In Wilde’s story, The Birthday of the Infante, a dwarf jester dies of a broken heart after being scorned by the spoiled princess and then seeing himself in a mirror for the first time in his life.  He realizes he is truly ugly, and the princess is so beautiful.  Here, Ninotchka sees herself in the mirror, and seems to see herself for the first time, and she is beautiful.  No longer a cog in the inevitable triumph of Marxist-Leninism, she sees herself as a woman.  Of course, a woman in love with a man.

She’s really quite forward – she knocks on Leon’s door.  Those Bolsheviks have a point about doing away with the old traditions.

After a late night and far too much champagne, Ninotchka pours out her heart to Leon.  She’s so happy, surely she will be punished for it.  Nobody can be so happy and not suffer for it.  It’s her Russian soul speaking, and perhaps a intuition of what awaits her back in the USSR.

She tells Leon she knows what her punishment should be.  She should be stood up against a wall…  Leon obliges.  Blindfolds her, raises it for a kiss, and then goes to get his weapon of execution.  Quite a titillating scene if you choose to read it that way.  With the sound of the cork popping off, she starts as if shot and sinks to the floor.  Now I’ve had my punishment.  Let’s go on with the party she declares!

This is Hollywood romatic comedy, and Leon is a gentleman, so after she collapses into a heap, he carries her to her bedroom and gives her a kiss while Lenin looks on.  Will they make a loving couple, or must they be a bourgeois-Marxist ménage à trois ?

Ninotchka is forced to return to Russia without Leon.  He tries to write to her and to get her out.  Life is pretty grim in the Socialist Paradise.

No worries.  It’s just a Hollywood backlot.


Mao: Outsider Philosopher King

May 25, 2010

These pictures were published in Life Magazine when I was a boy, prompting me to wonder, “Why the heck are they making a big deal about this guy swimming?”  I recall there was speculation about the image on the left – whether or not it was doctored.

No, Mao was in the swim, and he was demonstrating his fitness to be supreme leader and godhead of all political correctness in the coming storm, the soon-to-be released cataclysm of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.  Such a strange event – an aging dictator making good on his earlier threats to go to war against his own revolutionary establishment!  Of course, these days, this is old hat, running for the Senate or President, and claiming status as an outsider, eager to clean house.  But Mao did it…in his own way.

He really was sui generis as a tyrant.  A romantic revolutionary, impatient and uninterested in the minutiae of running a huge state, but ever ready to stir up a hornet’s nest of chaos with some opaque power play or ideological broadside.  Some of his colleagues called him B-52, because he dropped huge bombs from way up high.

He took on the role of emperor, the emperor perpetually running against Peking!  The goal of the revolution was not to make China rich, but to maker her an independent power and to further the maelstrom process of class struggle worldwide.  The Russians and many of his party, to his disgust, were more interested in pedestrian challenges like making the economy grow.  Here we see the lingering influence of his youthful leanings toward anarchism, and perhaps the source of his appeal to young radicals around the globe.  What other septuagenerian supremo would call on the students to smash the party regulars, dismantle the bureaucracy, trash the establishment, and give them arms, or at least look the other way when they stole them, to do it?

The millions of deaths he caused were not personally ordered by him.  He did not pore over death warrants as did Stalin, personally making annotations and changes.  He just commenced a totally hare brained scheme to make China overtake Europe’s economy in a few short years – without understanding a thing about economics – and as a result, agriculture withered, and tens of millions starved.  He whipped up the Cultural Revolution and millions were beaten, tortured, killed, but excesses are inevitable in the yin-yang dialectical struggle of the classes.  Oh, and he did personally direct a few traditional purges resulting in many thousands of executions, but only in a managerial capacity.

Why did he do this?  He was entranced with the Idea of revolution, and he firmly believed in the supremacy of the will.  Good qualities for a military leader fighting from a weak position – he was brilliant.  Bad for the leader of a giant state.  Nor did he have any understanding or interest of science and industry – willpower was supreme there as well.  And since will, his will, was all important, he created a position for himself in which he could not be questioned or opposed.   His lack of understanding and total contempt for what we call democracy, what he called bourgeois democracy, joined to the absence of any democratic tradition in China, topped off by the rule of committed party men who shared the Leninist belief in the guiding mission of the party ensured disaster.   Any dissenters were targeted as the rightist bourgeois element within the communist party!

After he died, the Gang of Four, including his estranged wife of Peking Opera fame, tried to carry on his apocalyptic quest.  The capitalist roader, Deng Xiao Ping prevailed and did exactly what Mao had been afraid he would do – turned China’s economy into a  form of state-capitalism.

Mao unified China, drove out the foreign devils, made China a great power, and destroyed the feudal landlord class.  For this, he will be regarded as a giant of China’s history forever.  For now, the ruling dynasty of the Party lives on, but China  favors total blandness in its new leaders, and no wonder.


Uncle Joe’s bailout

October 1, 2008

Stalin is much with us these days.  At left, a crude cartoon published in yesterday’s NYTimes lampooning the proposed bailout that was voted down later that day.  It was paid for by someone in Texas who seems to own a venture capital business.  Today, he ran another one that was a crude parody of the famous Iwo Jima flag raising, with Bush, Berneke, and Paulson raising the flag of communism on American soil.

Also in today’s paper, an article about a fellow in Georgia who makes a tidy living by impersonating Joe himself.

And on my home front, my latest acquisition.  From Regency  political cartoons and satires to deadly serious state propaganda.  A limited edition printing of the report on the first Five Year Plan of the USSR, completed in FOUR years, under the glorious leadership of Uncle Joe.  With a little help from slave labor.

When I look through these pages, I feel a tremendous sadness.  The forced collectivization was on.  The mass murder of the kulaks was in full swing.  The Ukrainian famine had wrought its horror.  The Gulag was growing apace.  The Great Purge was but three years off, to be followed by the cataclysm of the Nazi invasion.  All under Stalin’s watch.  No hint of that in these stirring pages…

A colleague of mine is Russian.  She smells the paper and the ink, and is transported back to her grandfather’s library…


Forever Flowing

June 6, 2008

Forever Flowing is the last book written by Vasily Grossman, and it too, was not published in his lifetime, in Russia, or anywhere else. The title refers to the prison trains, forever flowing eastward to the GULAG, like a river. This book is even more powerful a testament than his masterpiece, Life and Fate, but it is just that, a testament, a document, not really a novel, though it follows that form superficially. I have read criticisms of this book that say the translation is bad, that the manuscript from which it was taken was incomplete, but it is all we have, and it’s out of print in English! Even so, it is awesome.

Unlike Life and Fate, which deals with the fight for Stalingrad, the Nazi extermination camps, as well as the panorama of Stalins horrors, Forever Flowing focuses on the GULAG, the vast network of slave labor camps, the process by which people were placed there, and on the Ukrainian famine of the early 1930s. It also contains an extended essay on Russian history in which Grossman makes the heretical (for that time, certainly that place) claim that Stalin built on and carried on the essence of Lenin’s work, rather than distorting and perverting the work of that great, idealistic founder of the USSR. (Solzhenitsyn makes the same argument in The Gulag Archipelago volume I) That is, Lenin too, was an inhuman terrorist and totalitarian – he just never got too far because of his early death.

Grossman dissects the notions of the Russian soul that are so popular with thinkers of all political stripes. The soul that will redeem the rest of the world according to Dostoyevsky, and even Solzhenitsyn. For Grossman, the nature of that soul is quite simple – it is the result of 1000 years of slavery, Its gift to the world was not salvation, but Stalinism, and fascism.

Grossman makes the interesting claim that I have never encountered, that the Fascists of Italy and Germany imitated Stalin. I have often heard it said that Fascism and Communism were the same thing under different names – Grossman says it too – but he suggests that Hitler and Mussolini, observing the events in the USSR, the aggrandisement of the state, the crushing of all civil society, were impressed, and sought to imitate it within the boundaries of their own ideology. Certainly these dictators were aware of each other, and watched each other. Now, Putin carries on the tradition.

The story follows one GULAG zek, Ivan, after his release and his return to Moscow. He meets his relative, now a successful member of the Soviet “middle class”; he meets the man who denounced him and set him on his path through the camps for 30 years. The fellow is quite affluent – and he squirms with pain at the thought of having to deal with his guilty conscience. Fortunately, his former friend leaves him quickly. Ivan is not fated for happiness – he falls in love with his landlady, but she dies of cancer. He is alone – out of the world he knows in the camps – not part of the world to which he has returned.

Shortly after he begins his romance with his landlady, she tells him her story. They each tell of their personal horrors – though they want to be happy, they realize that they are the only ones to whom they can each open up and recall the horrors they have seen. Her story is the Ukrainian famine caused by the brutal policies of Stalin. First he shot or deported the male heads of households, the “kulaks”, the irredeemably “bourgeois” peasants (there’s an oxymoron!) who resisted collectivization, then he took the grain that remained to the villages. This policy was to feed the cities, and the workers there, support the state industrialization plan, and crush the resistance of the farmers to collectivization. The result was that hundreds of thousands of peasants starved to death. They starved in their villages, they crawled to the towns and starved there. The party activists came and took whatever grain they had – “parasites hiding the property of the people!” – and took that too. I have appended an excerpt from the description she gives – it is one of the most harrowing chapters I have ever read.

There is much dispute over the numbers that died in this famine and if it was “genocide.” Was it on purpose, or just the result of incompetence? Does it matter much? The policy was to ignore suffering and confiscate the grain.

Robert Conquest’s book on the famine, Harvest of Sorrow, has been criticized as having inflated numbers – he says 7 million died. He is a right wing conservative, so all the left wingers deny his evidence (or used to – are they around anymore?)   One comment I read attacked the book as trying to inflate Stalin to more of a criminal than Hitler – thus the 7 million figure!  Some dispute the magnitude of the event saying the fascist anti-semite Ukranians, the ones who welcomed the Nazi invasion – have an interest in inflating Stalin’s crimes to excuse their complicity with Hitler. All this is getting old now. Maybe 700,000 died – maybe 3.5 million – maybe 7 million. It was a lot, and it was brutal.

Vasily Grossman, Forever Flowing, New York: Harper & Row, 1972
(excerpt from Chapter 14).

from: http://www.faminegenocide.com/resources/witnesses.html

I don’t want to remember it. It is terrible. But I can’t forget it. It just keeps on living within me; whether or not it slumbers, it is still there. A piece of iron in my heart, like a shell fragment. Something one cannot escape. I was fully adult when it all happened…

No, there was no famine during the campaign to liquidate the kulaks. Only the horses died. The famine came in 1932, the second year after the campaign to liquidate the kulaks…

And so, at the beginning of 1930, they began to liquidate the kulak families. The height of the fever was in February and March. They expelled them from their home districts so that when it was time for sowing there would be no kulaks left, so that a new life could begin. That is what we all said it would be: “the first collective farm spring.”…

Our new life began without the co-called “kulaks”. They started to force people to join the collective farms. Meetings were underway from morning on. There were shouts and curses. Some of them shouted: “We will not join!”…

And we thought, fools that we were, that there could be no fate worse than that of the kulaks. How wrong we were! The axe fell upon the peasants right where they stood, on large and small alike. The execution by famine had arrived. By this time I no longer washed floors but was a book-keeper instead. And, as a Party activist, I was sent to Ukraine in order to strengthen a collective farm. In Ukraine, we were told, they had an instinct for private property that was stronger than in the Russian Republic. And truly, truly, the whole business was much worse in Ukraine…

Moscow assigned grain production and delivery quotas to the provinces, and the provinces then assigned them to the districts. And our village was given a quota that it couldn’t have fulfilled in ten years! In the village rada (council) even those who weren’t drinkers took to drink out of terror…

Of course, the grain deliveries could not be fulfilled. Smaller areas had been sown, and the crop yield on those smaller areas had shrunk. So where could it come from, that promised ocean of grain from the collective farms? The conclusion reached up top was that the grain had all been concealed, hidden away. By kulaks who had not yet been liquidated, by loafers! The “kulaks” had been removed, but the “kulak” spirit remained. Private property was master over the minds of the Ukrainian peasant.

Who was it who then signed the act which imposed mass murder? … For the decree required that the peasants of Ukraine, the Don, and the Kuban be put to death by starvation, put to death along with their tiny children. The instructions were to take away the entire seed fund. Grain was searched for as if it were not grain but bombs and machine guns. The whole earth was stabbed with bayonets and ramrods. Cellars were dug up, floors were broken through, and vegetable gardens were turned over. From some they confiscated grain, and dust hung over the earth. And there were no grain elevators to accommodate it, and they simply dumped it out on the earth and set guards around it. By winter the grain had been soaked by the rains and began to ferment — the Soviet government didn’t even have enough canvases to cover it up!…

Fathers and mothers wanted to save their children and hid a tiny bit of grain, and they were told: “You hate the country of socialism. You are trying to make the plan fail, you parasites, you pro-kulaks, you rats.” … The entire seed fund had been confiscated…

Everyone was in terror. Mothers looked at their children and began to scream in fear. They screamed as if a snake had crept into their house. And this snake was famine, starvation, death…

And here, under the government of workers and peasants, not even one kernel of grain was given them. There were blockades along all the highways, where militia, NKVD men, troops were stationed; the starving people were not to be allowed into the cities. Guards surrounded all the railroad stations. There were guards at even the tiniest of whistle stops. No bread for you, breadwinners! … And the peasant children in the villages got not one gram. That is exactly how the Nazis put the Jewish children into the Nazi gas chambers: “You are not allowed to live, you are all Jews!” And it was impossible to understand, grasp, comprehend. For these children were Soviet children, and those who were putting them to death were Soviet people…

Death from starvation mowed down the village. First the children, then the old people, then those of middle age. At first they dug graves and buried them, and then as things got worse they stopped. Dead people lay there in the yards, and in the end they remained in their huts. Things fell silent. The whole village died. Who died last I do not know. Those of us who worked in the collective farm administration were taken off to the city…

Before they had completely lost their strength, the peasants went on foot across country to the railroad. Not to the stations where the guards kept them away, but to the tracks. And when the Kyiv-Odesa express came past, they would just kneel there and cry: “Bread, bread!” They would lift up their horrible starving children for people to see. And sometimes people would throw them pieces of bread and other scraps. The train would thunder on past, and the dust would settle down, and the whole village would be there crawling along the tracks, looking for crusts. But an order was issued that whenever trains were travelling through the famine provinces the guards were to shut the windows and pull down the curtains. Passengers were not allowed at the windows…

And the peasants kept crawling from village into the city. All the stations were surrounded by guards. All the trains were searched. Everywhere along the roads were roadblocks — troops, NKVD. Yet despite all this the peasants made their way into Kyiv. They would crawl through the fields, through empty lots, through the swamps, through the woods — anywhere to bypass the roadblocks set up for them. They were unable to walk; all they could do was crawl…

What I found out later was that everything fell silent in our village… I found out that troops were sent in to harvest the winter wheat. The army men were not allowed to enter the village, however. They were quartered in their tents. They were told there had been an epidemic. But they kept complaining that a horrible stink was coming from the village. The troops stayed to plant the spring wheat too. And the next year new settlers were brought in from Orel Province (Russia). This was the rich Ukrainian land, the black earth, whereas the Orel peasants were accustomed to frequent harvest failures.


His Master’s Voice

May 24, 2008

Very nearly at the end of Grossman’s monumental novel, Life and Fate, the main character, Victor, a Jewish physicist gets a phone call.

He is a brilliant scientist, but a little too free with his thoughts and his talk. He has said things, made jokes, even about Stalin!, that a more circumspect academic would have avoided. His thoughts, well…he knows what was done to the kulaks, he knows the vast, murderous injustices of the Great Terror of 1937, he doesn’t believe in those sham trials of the old Bolsheviks…NO! But for the most part, he’s been careful, and there’s his work to keep him busy during the war.

His makes a breakthrough in his study of the properties of the atom. People are ecstatic, they hail him as a great successor to the quantum pioneers! But there is that matter of nationality…Rumors grow. Some people make criticisms of his work – too Idealistic, not properly Leninist/Marxist/Materialistic. Influenced by foreign elements. And his stated belief that physics knows no party? How can a true communist say such a thing?

He is denounced at a meeting that he refuses to attend. He will loose his position. He grows depressed as he sits at home, waiting for the knock on the door of the men who will take him away in a Black Maria to the Lubyanka, the interrogration hell of the secret police organs. After all, the former husband of his sister-in-law , a fanatical Bolshevik from the early revolution was just hauled in. Hadn’t Trotsky, long ago, praised an article he had written? He philosophizes, contemplates love – he wants them to come for him so it will at least be over!

Ah, but Grossman has other things up his sleeve as he dissects and portrays the ways the State can crush all life out of a man, and not just by killing him.

Victor gets a call from Stalin. Just a brief hello. “Your work is on a very interesting topic. I hope you have the resources you need.” The world has turned completely. From being about to topple into the abyss of the Gulag, Victor is now a privileged genius to be pampered, feted, trusted, and consulted. Why? The State has realized the importance of nuclear physics for its own ends – nothing to do with pure research. Russian scientists and policy makers are aware of the possibility of a nuclear bomb. They have their plans.

Victor need tell no one. Everyone knows of his call soon enough. They smile now, instead of looking away. They hug him, congratulate him, when before they denounced him. But there’s more…

Victor starts to get used to his new life, his freedom to work, the fast cars taking him to important meetings where everyone works cooperatively. The respect of his peers and superiors, not to mention his subordinates. Yes, he still knows what went on with the Ukraine famine, the forced collectivization, the disasterous fiasco of Stalin’s stupor when the Nazi’s invaded. He knows all that, but he is proud, elevated, to have been singled out by the great leader. He doesn’t think about those things so much…

All because he heard his master’s voice…